This is a selection taken from the stories I wrote between 2003 and 2011. Nearly all of them have been previously published, many in publications no longer extant. Where they are still available in existing books or magazines, sufficient time has elapsed to permit their re-publication without fear of ethical impropriety or breach of contractual terms. Check the Blog Archive at the bottom of the page for individual titles.

Please be aware that each story was written by the person I was at the time. In a sense, therefore, each one was written by somebody different. None of them was written by the person I am now.

Anybody wanting to view my novel Odyssey can do so here. I’ve set the price very low because I’m more interested in the story being read than in making money out of it. It’s about a goddess and her rabbit companion taking a mortal man on a journey to teach him a few lessons about the nature of reality and higher consciousness, and it's probably more entertaining than I make it sound. I never was any good at selling myself. The Gift Horse, a story of reincarnation and karmic balancing, is also now available at the same place.

February 15, 2011

L'Etranger.

The encounter with the enigmatic woman on the train from Nottingham happened just as written, right up to the point where she left me at Derby. The rest was easy.

It was first published in audio by Parade of Phantoms in 2008, and again by Title-Goes-Here magazine (see link at the bottom of the page) last month.

Approximate reading time: 25-30 minutes.

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The train now standing at platform 5A is the 1919 Central Trains service to Crewe, calling at Long Eaton, Derby, Tutbury & Hatton, Uttoxeter, Longton, Blythe Bridge, Stoke on Trent, Kidsgrove, Alsager, and Crewe.

The public address announcement on Nottingham station was clearer than it is on most. I heard every word distinctly and was relieved that I was only going as far as Uttoxeter. Old fashioned train services that stop at every pig trough and lamp post are very laudable in these rush-and-din days of expressway Britain, but I’m as guilty as everybody else in wanting to get to wherever I’m going as quickly as possible.

Not that I was in any particular hurry. I’d spent the day in the city with a friend and was now on my way home to nothing more than a quiet supper, a little reading perhaps, and bed.

At that moment I was sitting in the clammy, oppressive heat of a sultry June evening, drowsily regarding and being fascinated by the crumbling condition of the old, wood-encased walkway that connected the platforms. I felt hot and lazy from a day spent walking the hard streets among the noise and bustle of the city centre. The station felt less equatorial than the crowded uptown thoroughfares, but only slightly.

There were still twelve minutes to go before the appointed departure time, but I decided to climb aboard anyway. I would have a full choice of seats at my disposal, they would be more comfortable than the wooden bench on the platform, and it would probably be cooler in the carriage. I was right on all counts and was soon settled in a window seat, one of a group of four with a table between each pair.

In time honoured fashion I placed my bag conspicuously on the aisle seat to discourage anyone from sitting next to me. I am typically British in regarding the overly-close presence of strangers as an intrusion. There was, of course, nothing I could do about the pair of seats on the other side of the table. I leant back against the headrest and closed my eyes.

My brain settled quickly into a state bordering on sleep, but my instinct for caution held out its hand to prevent me slipping over the edge and into oblivion. I’d never fallen asleep on a train in my life. I’d always been stopped by the fear that I should wake up just as it was pulling away from the station where I needed to get off, causing me all manner of delay and difficulties. I suppose my concern was due to the universal human dread of losing control. Or maybe that’s typically British too.

And so I merely relaxed into a soporific haze, aware of the sound of unseen strangers taking their places at a respectful distance, fellow beings joining me for an hour or so on my journey through life. None of us would speak, of course. Our respective lives might come close to physical touching distance, but we would remain as disengaged as if there were a million miles between us.

I heard the sound of two voices, one male and one female, obviously a young couple returning from a day trip. I heard bags being thrown onto seats and newspapers being unfolded. I heard a child say something to its parent somewhere further down the carriage. I heard a guard’s whistle out on the platform, and the rising hum of a diesel engine preparing to carry another collection of strangers in another direction. I wondered how long it would be before we were due to go off in ours and opened my eyes to look at my watch. One minute to go.

A number of the seats around me had been occupied, but nobody had taken either of the two on the other side of the table. The carriage was quiet and settled. I hoped that everyone who was going to board the train had now done so and that we would soon be on our way. I looked out of the window, waiting for the far platform to begin slipping backwards as we made our move. It remained stationary and there was one passenger still to come.

I watched her get on, just before our guard blew his whistle. Something about her appearance aroused my attention and I studied her with interest as she moved slowly down the aisle in my direction. She was looking around with apparent concern, obviously seeking to make the best choice from the limited seating options still available. She appeared nervous and very particular about where she should choose to sit.

There seemed to be a lack of ensemble about her mode of dress. At first glance I thought she looked scruffy, and yet there was no particular item of her clothing that was in any way shabby or unkempt. Her thin coat, lightweight sweater, silk blouse, long skirt, and plain shoes were all perfectly tidy and well ordered.

Perhaps it was the fact that she was wearing so many layers on such a warm day that made her seem out of place. Perhaps the colours and styles just didn’t hang together as they should. I considered both and dismissed them. I concluded that she was just one of those people who didn’t wear clothes well. I had often been struck by the fact that some people can throw the most ill-fitting and badly chosen combinations about themselves and look wonderful, while others can wear the best there is and still look wrong.

But then I looked more closely at her face, and that seemed somehow “wrong” too. For the life of me, I couldn’t work out why. She looked oddly familiar, and yet there was something out of place. Whatever it was, it was vague and elusive, too subtle to identify. I saw that she had caught me watching her and I felt embarrassed. Staring at strangers is not polite, and so I turned my head away to glance idly around the carriage.

It seemed that my interest had given her something to latch onto. She stopped searching and made straight for me, taking the aisle seat of the pair on the opposite side of my table. She placed her shoulder bag on the other one and began moving the contents about. I took the opportunity to sneak another look at her face.

It only took a couple of seconds to make a quick assessment. Her dark, short-cropped hair was tidily cut but untended. Her cheekbones were widely set and prominent. Her nose was a little longer than normal, with a slightly hooked appearance, and her chin was small and unusually pointed. Her skin looked over-washed, freshly scrubbed as it were, with red blotches that were all the more prominent for the lack of any trace of make-up. She found what she was looking for and took out a magazine. It was a copy of National Geographic.

In a way, I was pleased that she had chosen to sit opposite me. I knew that unaccompanied women often felt vulnerable on trains and I understood why. The fact that she had chosen my little bit of the carriage meant that she must have thought me trustworthy. On what basis she should have made such a decision, I didn’t know. I put it down to feminine intuition and it bolstered my ego. I like being thought trustworthy. And the fact that she was reading a journal of such stature made me feel more comfortable. If I had to have a near neighbour, better someone like her than a self-obsessed young executive playing noisily with a laptop and a mobile phone.

And yet there was something about her face that made me uneasy. I glanced briefly at her again and the impression was the same as before, only stronger: the same suspicion of familiarity, now grown to near certainty, and the same elusive sense that something was out of place. The feeling gelled fleetingly into a sudden, strong impression that she didn’t belong here. She belonged to another place or another time, or both. And then it faded again.

By then the train was moving. The platform had been replaced by anonymous suburbs gathering speed beyond the carriage window. The rural landscape of the Trent Valley would soon be upon us and I settled back to await its appearance, turning my face away from the woman and towards the glass.

But the view to be seen in a carriage window carries images of two worlds. There is the moving panorama projecting itself through the window from the outside, and there is the still image of the carriage interior reflecting its ghostly picture from the glass. It takes a momentary shift of focus to see either of them, and it was the latter that caught my attention. I could see that the woman was not reading her magazine. She was looking over the top of it and staring intensely at me.

Like most people, I dislike being stared at - especially by a stranger who has already aroused a sense of disquiet in me. I chose not to look around and face her. The combination of practised reserve and my seemingly unfounded suspicion held me back for a second. I did look away from the window eventually, glancing around the carriage with a pretended show of indifference. The woman pulled the magazine back in front of her face so that only the top of her head was visible.

I looked out of the window again to watch the panorama of the green countryside slip silently by. I wondered how many natural dramas were being enacted under cover of the lush summer vegetation, dramas that were invisible and meaningless to me but inevitably carried matters of great import to the creatures involved in them.

I was struck again by the way in which individual lives touch each other as we walk our solitary roads, and how that touch can vary from a mere second of unrequited awareness to meetings of the greatest consequence. I shifted my focus and saw that the woman was staring at me as before, unmoving and with such apparent intensity that I began to feel pressured. No, “pressured” won’t do; I began to feel chilled. A phrase suddenly flashed into my head, almost as though someone had held it up for me to read. “A matter of life and death,” it said in big, bold letters. Where had that come from, I wondered?

I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye. The woman was putting the magazine back into her bag and I wondered what would happen next. I hoped she wouldn’t speak to me. She didn’t; she relaxed back into her seat and stared dead ahead, her hands resting easily on her lap. As far as I could tell, she was no longer taking any interest in me but had become the very model of an average, unconnected fellow passenger. And so she remained until the train began to slow.

We were approaching the first stop on the line. The board that read Long Eaton came into view and the guard’s announcement added unnecessary confirmation. I saw a hand stretch out. The woman was reaching towards my arms which were resting on the table between us.

My inclination was to recoil, but I managed to avoid doing so. That would have been impolite. But I did feel a sense of something amounting to mild dread as I realised that contact was about to be made.

She stopped an inch or two short of touching me and I felt compelled to look at her. Her expression carried a hint of a smile and the look in her eyes told me that she was about to ask me a question. Suddenly I realised what was out of place. She was French. Even before she spoke, I knew it. That was why she hadn’t seemed to fit in. I was certain she was foreign.

She proved me wrong, or appeared to, by asking her question in a typically North Midlands accent. Foreigners might learn to speak perfect English, but they always have one of two accents. Either it carries the unmistakable sound of their homeland, or they have gone the whole way and learned to speak the language with Received Pronunciation. They never speak with a regional accent. This woman did, and she addressed me with a note of nervousness in her voice.

“Excuse me,” she began, “does this train go straight into Derby, or do we have to get off here and cross over?”

Her question threw me for a second. The logic and grammar were fine; it was the idiom that was wrong. Anyone familiar with rail travel is also familiar with its common expressions. Such a person would ask “Does this train stop at Derby, or do we have to change here?”

She looked to be around forty years of age, but I assumed that she was unfamiliar with rail travel and its commonly used phrases. It occurred to me that what is normally referred to as “changing” at a railway station does involve getting off one train, crossing over to another platform, and getting on another one. It’s just that people don’t put it that way. And it seemed that her unusual choice of phrase was curiously in keeping with the enigmatic air that hung about her. I muttered a simple reply, telling her that the train did stop at Derby and that it was the next station on the line. She looked reassured and continued.

“Oh good,” she said. “Only I get very confused, you see.”

I could only manage a nod in response. I wondered whether she might be, as the vernacular so graphically puts it, “a penny short of a shilling.” She seemed to read my reaction and hurried to explain.

“Of course, I’m very experienced in... experienced in...” She was struggling to find the right word. “Travelling!” she said suddenly and with a note of triumph. “I’m very experienced in travelling. But I still get confused.”

This was hardly an explanation. If anything, it only served to further my belief that there was something distinctly odd about her. But she hadn’t finished yet. The strangest statement was yet to come. She fixed me with a piercing stare and said

“I still can’t believe how easy it is.”

I didn’t know what to say. Having lived all my life using the various forms of transport available in the modern world, it had never occurred to me to consider whether they were easy or not. And I felt nonplussed that someone claiming to be an “experienced” traveller should make such a statement. I said nothing and she must have detected my bemusement again. The red blotches on her face all but disappeared as her skin coloured up with embarrassment. She turned to look out of the window, pressing the side of her head hard against the seat.

“I’m sorry,” she said suddenly, and then laughed in a way that didn’t sound embarrassed. It sounded menacing.

I looked out of the window too, hoping she would attempt no further contact. Her close proximity had begun to feel threatening. I was coming to wonder whether she had been recently released from some sort of institution. Worse still, had she escaped?

My mind was wholly preoccupied by the disquieting sense of her presence as the train sped on through the countryside. I hardly saw the landscape. For some reason I still had the feeling that she was French, despite the contrary evidence of her accent. I assumed that to be the reason for the moving picture that came swimming strongly into my mind and kept me rapt for several minutes.

It was a gruesome image that played out its tableau realistically and in real time. I saw the tall frame of a guillotine and, at its base, a woman leaning forward with her head already on the block. The sun was shining brightly on her white gown that looked to be of fine quality. She remained still for some time, apparently resigned to her fate since she needed no restraining.

My position was higher than hers and so I couldn’t see her face. Neither could I see anyone else around her; the periphery of the picture was a blur. But I did see a hand stretch out and take hold of her long, dark hair, pulling it sideways to hang down alongside her cheek. No doubt that made the work of the blade easier. There was no barked order, no sound of a restless crowd, and no drum roll, nothing to announce the sudden flash of steel that was followed by a dull thud.

I saw the head fall and disappear into a basket, part of its long hair remaining draped over the top. I saw blood spurt violently forward and spatter on the decking in front of the apparatus. I fancied I could almost smell it.

I think my eyes must have been wide and staring as they refocused on the image reflected from the carriage window. My companion’s head was still turned towards it. She appeared to be looking out of the window too, but I soon realised that she wasn’t. As the sound of the train wheels clattering on the track brought me back into my own time, I saw that her eyes were looking directly into mine. And there was a hint of a smile on her lips.

I shrugged the whole thing off and watched the scenery again. It wasn’t long before we entered the outskirts of Derby and I feared that the woman, unpractised as she apparently was in the ways of rail travel, might miss her stop and I might have to deal with her consequent dismay. That was an unpleasant prospect. I would be very glad to see her get off the train.

I plucked up the courage to speak to her again, pointing out that we would shortly be entering Derby station. Her reaction was predictable. She became anxious and took hold of her bag.

“I’d better hurry,” she said. “Wouldn’t want to miss my stop.”

She began to get up and I felt obliged to point out that it would be a few minutes yet before the train came to a halt. She sat nervously on the edge of her seat, holding her bag close to her, until two other passengers rose to make their way to the door. She got up immediately and followed them. She offered me no form of acknowledgement whatsoever - no nod, no smile, no “goodbye.” I was not offended, merely relieved.

I saw the trio standing in line, waiting for the train to stop and the carriage doors to slide open. I watched the three figures move forward at the appointed time and saw them disappear, one by one, behind the bulkhead at the end of the compartment. I looked out of the window and saw the first passenger get off, and then the second. I waited for my erstwhile companion to follow them, but she didn’t. Only two people got off the train. I could see most of the platform clearly and she wasn’t on it.

I looked back to the end of the compartment, expecting her to reappear and make her way back to the seat. Maybe she had decided not to get off at Derby after all. Maybe she had got her destination confused. She did say that she got “confused.”

She didn’t reappear. I heard the doors shut and felt the train start to move. Now I was confused. I got up and walked up the aisle to see whether she was standing by the doors. Finding that part of the carriage empty, I looked down the rest of it, and also out of the window to that small part of the platform that had not been visible from my seat. There was no sign of her anywhere.

The train was beginning to gather speed again as I lurched back down the aisle. I re-took my seat and pondered the apparent mystery. I could only assume that there must have been some way in which she had been able to get off the platform without my seeing her. I mentally ran through the scenario again and couldn’t see how. I decided to put it behind me. She was gone now and that was all that mattered.

But was she gone? As the train sped on through the Derbyshire countryside, I was quite unable to settle. Every time I looked out of the window I kept feeling a compulsive need to look back at the aisle. I kept expecting to see her again, and was almost surprised every time I looked along it and she wasn’t there.

I kept remembering the apparently nervous way that she had moved down it when we were standing on Nottingham station. I wondered again why she had chosen to sit opposite me. I had thought that she was simply looking for someone trustworthy. Suddenly, I realised the truth. She hadn’t been looking for a safe place to sit; she had been looking specifically for me. That was why she had made a bee line for me as soon as she caught my eye.

I found the realisation disturbing. For that’s what I knew it to be - a fact, not a theory. I was certain of it. Why me? What was my connection with her and what purpose could our brief train ride together have served? And how had she managed to disappear at Derby? I realised something else too. The image of the guillotine kept running through my head and it gave me the clue as to what I had sensed as being “wrong” about her. It was her hair. It should have been long, not short. How could I know that?

I began to feel that there was some sort of unfinished business between us. I didn’t even know who she was, much less what the issue could be; but it didn’t feel good. There was a hint of retribution in the air. Another notice flashed before me. This one read “Nemesis.”

I felt nervous when the train stopped at Tutbury & Hatton and the doors slid open. I looked for the woman to reappear, but she didn’t. We were soon on our way again and the weight of something long forgotten continued to press, something that had no conscious identity, no picture to give it form, nothing I could describe except to say that it was a feeling without a source. It was like being frightened when there’s nothing to be frightened of; but I sensed that it had something to do with a past crime that was waiting to be revisited.

Whose crime, I wondered? I had read a book of true stories once, about ghosts that haunt the railway network. I began to think I might have encountered one. Perhaps she had been murdered on that stretch of line; perhaps she had been decapitated; perhaps the image of the guillotine was meant to be a symbolic representation of the crime.

The theory had a few things to commend it. It would explain her disappearance and some of the odd things she had said. It might even explain her nervousness. But it didn’t explain why she had been dressed in modern clothes, nor my curious certainty that her hair should have been long. And it didn’t account for the fact that she had apparently been looking for me. I wasn’t convinced it would do.

I felt some relief when the train slowed and I saw Uttoxeter racecourse over to my left. I would soon be off this haunted vehicle and on my way home. I could put the mystery behind me and wash away the sense of dread that had been troubling me for the last half hour. I set to thinking about what I would have for supper.

I rose as the train came slowly to a halt. I threw my bag over my shoulder and made my way down the aisle behind the only other passenger who was getting off there. We stood for a few seconds, waiting for the doors to open. There appeared to be no one waiting on the platform. The doors slid aside and I followed him down the step and onto the concrete platform, turning right to head for the footway that crosses the line and leads to the car park.

As my foot touched the ground, my eye was caught by a movement to my left. I turned to see the strange woman who had been the object of so much mystery. She was hurrying towards the doors from the other direction. I stopped and stared at her, but she ignored me. She climbed aboard the train and turned to look down the aisle, towards the end where I had been sitting. She appeared to be looking for something. And then she turned and looked at me, while I could only gaze back in blank amazement. As the doors began to close, she lifted the palm of one hand towards me and smiled knowingly.

“Au revoir,” she said, in a perfect French accent.

The doors slid together, removing her image from my astonished eyes. The driver gave a loud blast on the horn and the train began to move. I looked through the carriage windows as it eased past me, but saw nothing of the woman. I continued to stand in a state of bewilderment until the vehicle passed under the road bridge and disappeared around a bend.

The stranger’s final words echoed in my head. There was something terribly ominous about them. I know what “au revoir” means. It means “until we see each other again.” I realised that she was my ghost, not the railway’s. And it seemed little short of a certainty that she would also be my nemesis, either in this life or another. The crime, I now felt sure, had been mine.

They have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.

I had heard that excerpt from Hosea as a child, and I remembered how uneasy it had made me feel. I also remembered that I had always been fascinated by the guillotine executions so commonly associated with the French Revolution. The obscene spectacle of the public occasion, the unparalleled drama of the final split second, the sudden splattering mess, and the theorising around the question of whether the victim remains conscious for a while, staring helplessly at the inside of a wicker basket before darkness mercifully descends. I had listened to the fourth movement of the Symphonie Fantastique many times and had never ceased to be enthralled by the images that ran through my mind like a videotape.

Maybe now I knew where they came from. Maybe now I could stop feeling slightly ashamed of my ability to imagine such horrors. Maybe I hadn’t imagined them; you don’t need to imagine a memory. Or could such a memory, however well hidden, carry with it a cause of infinitely greater shame?

I drove home knowing that the sense of dread would never be entirely washed away; and so it hasn’t. It has faded, of course. I have to get on with my life and the business of living brings many distractions whose immediacy cloaks this imp of unwelcome knowledge sitting quietly on my shoulder.

It whispers to me occasionally though, usually late at night when I’m tired. And sometimes it shakes me roughly when I hear references to Robespierre or Les Tricoteurs. At such moments I wonder whether my nemesis and I are about to come face to face again.

It hasn’t happened yet, perhaps because I’ve never been on a train since that day. But how do I know that the train was significant anyway? Our next meeting could happen anywhere, and it might be scheduled for tomorrow or a thousand years from now. And I am still at a loss to know why she has chosen to give me notice of her impending retribution.

So how long do I have to go on waiting for the moment when I hear a female voice say “Bonjour” and I have to turn and face her?

It probably won’t be that straightforward; the workings of the universe rarely are. But when the whirlwind does eventually strike, no doubt she will be in the middle of it. And I know that any attempt to escape her will be pointless.

February 01, 2011

Helping Jennifer.

Ghost stories don’t necessarily have to be chilling. Ghosts come in all forms, just as the living do, and some of them only haunt us to seek our help. And when the one in need is a child, what else would a reluctant hero do but try to find some courage from somewhere and take his best shot at it?

The last time I went to Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, the Palace Cinema was still there. And I had a lot in common with Billy Johnson when I was his age.

This story was published only recently by Hall Brothers Entertainment in their anthology Undiscovered: Tales of Exploration, Adventure and Excitement.

Approximate reading time: 45 minutes.

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A pale-faced, poorly dressed young man stood shivering on the fringe of a small group of anonymous strangers, all sheltering from the rain in the doorway of a town centre department store.

His name was Billy Johnson and he had been there for ten minutes, idly observing the steady turnover of fellow refugees from the inclement weather. None of them had stayed long. As one had raised an umbrella, donned a hat, or pulled a high collar tight about the neck and moved on, another had taken the vacant place for a short while and then moved on too.

They all appeared to have one thing in common: a desire to be about their business without undue delay. Billy was the exception. He had no business to be about. He was unemployed and broke. The only place he had to go was home, and he spent too much time there as it was.

He got bored at home. His domestic routines filled some of the time, but there were plenty of gaps between them and the lack of purpose and activity often hung heavy. Reading helped, but only so far. He found the daytime TV schedules full of meaningless trivia, and his rented house needed nothing doing to it in the way of remedial work. Besides, DIY cost money and that was in painfully short supply. He couldn’t afford hobbies either and so, apart from listening to his small repertoire of music over and over again, there was little to fill the time. He felt a longing to have an adventure of some sort, but adventures tend not to happen to penniless people whose only escape from the domestic routine is a walk around the local town a couple of times a week.

So there he stood in the shop doorway, only partially protected from the heavy shower of rain that was gusting in all directions on the blustery March wind. He began to imagine exotic and interesting places. He thought of Scottish lochs and the sea cliffs of western Ireland, of the snow-capped Himalayas and the balmy splendour of the Taj Mahal, of the ice mountains rising from the deep blue waters of the Antarctic Ocean, and of the sandy, palm-fringed bays of the South Sea Islands. He saw square-rigged ships labouring heavily under stormy skies, and heard the plaintive sound of a solitary Japanese flute drifting across the wooded slopes of some fondly pictured, oriental hillside.

His eyes were glazed as they looked beyond the scurrying people and the walls of the buildings opposite; his face was oblivious to the stinging intent of the spitting rain that occasionally drove under the canopy; and his ears were deaf to the engines of passing cars and the hissing of tyres on the wet road.

He was jerked out of his reverie by a firm nudge on his shoulder. He roused himself and looked into the eyes of a middle aged woman who smiled at him and said

“Sorry; bit crowded under here, isn’t it?”

He nodded and smiled back, but said nothing. He was still half dreaming as he idly matched her gaze. She seemed to fit his dream somehow. There was a faraway look about her, as though she belonged to the wider world with all its beauty and mystery, and not to the rain drenched street in the mundane little market town where they were standing.

And she looked familiar. He felt that he had known her once, but couldn’t remember where or when. Her eyes carried a warm and comfortable resonance. They took him back to his childhood when the world had been straightforward, when the sun had shone constantly on a vibrantly coloured landscape, and adventure had never been further away than the nearest comic book. Such a big impression in so short a time, for she moved on almost as she spoke to him.

As she strode off along the wet pavement, he noticed something flutter to the ground. It was a ten pound note and he realised that the woman must have dropped it. He went out into the rain, picked it up and hurried after her.

“Excuse me,” he called as he approached her. She turned around and smiled again. “I think you dropped this.”

“Not me,” she said. “I never carry cash; I have no need of it. Perhaps somebody’s given you a gift. Why don’t you keep it? Thank you for being so honest.”

She turned and walked away. Billy watched her retreating form and felt surprised at the brevity and decisiveness of her reaction; and he found the content of her reply verging on the incomprehensible.

“Everybody carries some cash,” he thought. “You don’t buy a bag of sweets with a credit card, do you?”

Perhaps she didn’t buy small items. Perhaps she had a servant or something, a lackey who did that kind of thing. She had been very well dressed and he supposed that some rich people still had servants.

“But what’s this ‘gift’ business all about? Who from? Very odd!”

He walked back to the small group of people still huddled in the doorway.

“Has anybody dropped this?” he asked loudly.

A couple of the group looked at him and shook their heads. The rest ignored him. The inhabitants of small English market towns generally avoid contact with strangers, especially poorly dressed men waving money about. They probably thought him a little unbalanced, possibly drunk, or both.

“Oh well,” he thought. “I’ll keep it then. Maybe it was a gift.”

He looked up at the sky, narrowing his eyes to protect them from the rain, and said “thank you” out loud. Ten pounds was a lot of money to a man on benefit, and he was not the least concerned that the group in the doorway should be even more convinced of his undesirability. And if it was a gift, he thought, he ought to buy himself something.

But what? He considered the options. To Billy, most of what other people routinely bought as everyday items were treats. He started to make a mental list, but it grew uncomfortably long very quickly and the decision was difficult. It reminded him of going into a shop as a child, armed with his meagre day’s pocket money, and being faced with a hundred and one tempting items. Which one to have and which hundred to leave behind? This time the decision came to him in a flash when he looked along the road and saw the cinema.

“Haven’t been to the pictures in years,” he thought. “That’s it then.”

So off he went, pushing the ten pound note deep into his pocket to keep it from getting wet.

The Palace was a rare survivor of the glory days of cinema, before television turned the nation’s viewing habits from a communal activity into an essentially private one. The late Victorian building, standing proudly across a corner site, evoked the quiet charm of a bygone era. It still had highly polished brass handles on the doors, and had retained the art deco environment in the foyer. And, best of all for a traditionalist, it still had only one screen. It also ran counter to modern commercial practice in that it continued to be operated as a local, independent business.

He knew that it had been a theatre once. Portraits of old actors still hung on the foyer walls as testament to the fact. It had been converted some time in the nineteen thirties and he wondered whether the traditionalists of the time had complained about the loss of their beloved theatre. No doubt they had bemoaned the coming of the new-fangled cinema. The reaction to change can be subjective, he thought. Notions of good and bad often hang on the vagaries of changing fashion or the whim of personal preference.

He crossed the road and approached the doors. A giant poster on the wall told him that the film now showing was the latest Hollywood blockbuster. He had read about it; some crass nonsense in which brave American beefcake confounds all logic by defeating the attempts of a highly superior race of aliens to conquer the world. He saw such things as nothing more than propaganda for Uncle Sam.

“Gives them an excuse to try and rule the world,” he thought. Personally, he wished the aliens would win.

But, never mind. The film would no doubt be entertaining as long as he kept his brain in neutral, and it would make a welcome change from sitting in the house or hanging around the streets. The first show of the day started in fifteen minutes. He went in, paid his money and spent some of the change on an orange drink and a small box of chocolate-covered mints. If he was going to relive his childhood, he was going to do it properly.

The doors to the auditorium stood invitingly open. He went through them and into the subdued light that is the start of the ascent into fantasy. On the far side the massive curtains hung closed, hiding the mysterious screen that carried the promise of limitless journeys to other worlds. His sense of expectation began to rise along with a long-forgotten impatience for the house lights to go down and the projector beam to cut the darkness with its magical cargo. He sniffed the air. This place even smelt like a proper cinema.

A dozen or so other souls had taken refuge from the rain and were widely spaced among the comfortable, old fashioned seating. He selected an empty row near the back and settled himself in preparation for his treat. Someone rustled a chocolate wrapper a few rows in front of him, and several more solitary individuals wandered in and dispersed themselves at respectable intervals around the auditorium. Apart from that, the place was deathly quiet. And then the lights went down, the curtains opened and the screen came to life.

The adverts seemed interminable, but eventually they gave way to the title of the film and a statement that it had been given a PG rating.

“I suppose that means the dead bodies won’t bleed,” he thought. “Typical!”

For half an hour he watched the action with a mixture of mild interest and sardonic amusement. The script was predictable, the plot formulaic and the characters somewhat short of credible. They shouted a lot and believed in Truth, Justice and The American Way.

Never mind, the special effects were good and he had told his brain cells to have a couple of hours off. There was no point in hoping that the aliens would prevail. It was already clear that the nervous scientist and the insubordinate jet pilot were going to save the world. The combination of the geek with brains and the hero with attitude was irresistible. Together, they encapsulated the qualities that make what passes for democracy the only way to live, and have us feeling grateful that the guardians of the free world watch over us and direct our lives towards a wholesome future. And, just in case we still had any lingering doubts, the President would hug the heroes at the end and everyone would cheer.

The President made his appearance earlier than that. His face filled the screen and the eyes of an anxious world were upon him. Six billion people held their breath as he struck the determined pose of the Commander-in-Chief.

“My fellow Americans,” he began gravely. “Fellow citizens of the world...”

“Bollocks,” thought Billy.

And then everything stopped. There was no movement on the screen and no sound. The colour went too. The giant, still face was drained of blood as well as bluster, and stared into the auditorium in monochrome. Billy found the effect the most interesting part of the experience, and wondered how it could have happened.

He looked up towards the projector beam. There was none. That was odd. How could there be an image on the screen with nothing projecting it there? He looked back at the screen and then back at the ceiling. Definitely a picture and definitely no beam.

He wondered how the rest of the audience had reacted and looked down across the seats. The image threw a harsh glow across the space between them, and Billy became even more confused. The rows in front of his were empty. No bobbing heads turning around to see what was going on, nobody standing up, no sound of complaint. He looked around in every direction. He was the sole occupant of the auditorium. Where had everybody gone? How could they have left without him seeing them?

He came to an immediate and obvious conclusion. He must have fallen asleep and been left there when the film finished. He felt momentarily embarrassed, but thought again. It didn’t explain why the image was still on the screen. And he remembered that it was afternoon. Surely he couldn’t have slept through the evening and night shows too.

He sat and looked around for a few moments, wondering whether he might be the victim of some optical illusion. That didn’t seem credible either. Could his drink or the chocolates have been spiked with some sort of drug? Too fanciful. He felt fine and in full possession of his faculties.

He stood up and edged along the seats towards the main aisle. He walked slowly down it, examining the rows on both sides, suddenly possessed of the notion that everyone else might have fallen asleep, or been struck down by a gas leak or something. Every row was empty and he told himself that the idea was ridiculous.

But so was the situation. He looked up towards the projector window. It was dark and the room behind it evidently unoccupied. So were the seats in the balcony, and the six boxes that were never used but had been left in place when the old theatre had been converted. He began to feel uneasy and noticed that it was getting colder.

“Well,” he thought, “I can’t see how it can have happened, but it seems I’ve been locked in. Everybody’s gone and the heating’s been turned off. I suppose I must have fallen asleep.”

He held up his arm to catch the light from the screen and looked at his watch. Three o’clock.

“Must be three in the morning,” he thought.

But then he doubted the sleep theory again; it just didn’t feel right. He frowned, shook his head and said out loud

“That’s bloody ridiculous. It can’t be.” He mockingly answered himself. “OK, so come up with a better explanation.”

He had none. He was confused and becoming uneasy. Large empty buildings can be unnerving, even when there’s a logical reason for being there. This situation was incomprehensible and that made it much worse. And then he realised that he wasn’t being quite as logical as he should have been. In his confusion he had only checked the auditorium and assumed that the building was empty. He hadn’t looked in the foyer yet.

He strode up the aisle and pushed open the double doors. His optimism was misplaced; the foyer was eerily empty too. Everything was so pristinely in order that it looked almost unreal. The oddest thing of all was the total lack of noise. Absolute silence. No hum from the fridges, no crack of a shrinking board, no sound of traffic or people from the outside. It was light in there at least, but that hardly made him feel any better. The silence and the mystery were beginning to take a toll on his nerves.

There was only one thing to do: call the police. No doubt they would have a key holder listed and could arrange to get him out. He knew that he would be a bit less than popular, but he had no desire to spend the rest of the night in the place. As he looked around for the payphone it struck him as odd that the lights in the foyer should have been left on when the place had been locked up.

“Security, I suppose,” he thought, and looked at the art deco lamps on the walls.

They were all switched off. He looked at the ceiling lights and saw that they were off too. He looked everywhere but could see no source of illumination. He shrugged his shoulders, assuming against reason that it was some wonder of modern technology. He located the phone and picked it up. He deposited the required number of coins in the slot and waited for the dial tone. Nothing.

“Bloody great,” he said angrily, and slammed the receiver down. “Why doesn’t anything work when you need it?”

He wished he had a mobile phone but had always thought them an unnecessary expense. He realised that there would be a phone in the office, if only he could find it and the door was unlocked. That gave him an idea. The front doors might be secured by a Yale lock, or one of those mortice types with a turning mechanism on the inside. If so, he would be able to get out and worry about the consequences later.

He went over to them, but was disappointed. The lock was a straightforward type that needed a key. He looked through the window in the top half of the door, hoping there might be some late passer-by whose attention he could attract. He became even more confused. He could see nothing at all. Even if it really was three o’clock in the morning, the street lights would still be on. The glass was jet black. No street, no buildings, no cars, nothing - just the reflection of his own face in the window.

“What the hell is going on?” he asked himself rhetorically. “There are no lights on in here, yet it’s as bright as day. There must be lights out there, but it’s black as pitch”.

He had no answer to the mystery, but he did have a sudden brainwave. The fire exits. He knew they would be secured by a push bar so that they could only be opened from the inside. Such doors had no other sort of lock. Why hadn’t he thought of that before?

He walked quickly back to the auditorium doors and flung them open. The white face still filled the screen and seemed to be watching him as he marched impatiently down the aisle. He turned left at the bottom to head for the nearest fire exit. He pushed the bars but they were locked solid.

“That’s illegal,” he said petulantly, and turned to walk across to the other set on the far side.

He declined to look at the face on the screen as he marched across its unwavering gaze. He had seen more than enough of that for one day. He put all his weight against the bars on that side. They were immovable too. He began to feel a suggestion of panic rising within him, but told himself to calm down. There had to be a way out of this. He stood with his hands on his hips, and turned to look up towards the back of the auditorium.

His eyes widened and a shiver ran briefly down his spine. He had company. A figure was sitting motionless, about where he had been sitting earlier. Where the hell had that come from? He’d been certain that the place was empty. As far as he could tell, the figure was small - the size of a child it seemed. He or she was sitting motionless and staring dead ahead.

He tried to subdue the cold, creeping feeling that was spreading around his body. He tried to convince himself that he should be glad he wasn’t alone. It didn’t work. Putting the combined facts together simply didn’t add up to a credible picture. The figure was just the latest factor to enter a situation that was becoming a bit of a waking nightmare.

And then he remembered something, and wished he hadn’t. He remembered reading once that The Palace was reputed to have a ghost. In fact, it was said to have two. He tried not to think about it; but the human mind has a curiously masochistic streak when faced with fear, and the story came flooding back to him whether he liked it or not.

The first ghost was said to be that of a young girl who was occasionally seen walking behind the seats at the back of the stalls. She was believed to be the spirit of a child who had died there in the nineteen twenties. Her father had worked at the theatre in some production capacity and had begun an affair with one of the actresses from a touring company. Her mother had found out and been unsuccessful in her attempt to persuade him to call off the liaison. On the contrary, he had announced his intention to stay with his lover when the company moved on to their next engagement.

In the agony of despair, and driven by the desire for revenge, the jilted wife had taken their only daughter to the theatre one night and bought two tickets for the balcony. As the curtain rose on the first act, she had thrown herself headlong into the stalls below, carrying her daughter with her. They had both died instantly.

The second ghost was that of an elderly man who had been seen many times over the years, sneering and leering at the usherettes from one of the boxes late at night when the audience had gone. No one had any idea who he was, but he was said to be ugly and very unpleasant. Several of the women had left as a result of their experience.

As these stories were passing remorselessly through Billy’s mind, he was making a fresh attempt to control his rising panic. He knew that he would have to walk back up the aisle, child or no child, even if only to make a bolt for the relative comfort of the well-lit foyer.

He began his slow walk, watching the figure as he climbed the sloping floor. It remained still and continued to stare at the screen. As he got closer, he could see that it was indeed a young girl whom he judged to be about seven or eight. Her face was ashen grey as it reflected the lurid light from the screen, and her hair was long and arranged in ringlets. A bow of indeterminate colour was fixed to one side and she was wearing a garment that buttoned up to the neck. It didn’t look to him like the kind of style that modern children wear.

He continued to watch her as he came close to the end of the row in which she was seated. He hoped desperately that she wouldn’t move. She did. His stride was checked as she suddenly turned her head to look him full in the face.

His first intention was to bolt for the foyer doors, but he saw an intense look of sadness in her eyes and a feeling of pity diluted his fear. He also felt compelled to talk to her and struggled to summon the necessary courage to do so. What small amount of logic was still left in his beleaguered mind told him that he did not know for certain that she was a ghost. It was just enough to give him the impetus he needed.

“Hello,” he croaked uncertainly.

“Hello,” said the child in a sweet, small voice that seemed old for her apparent years. Billy continued.

“What’s your name?”

“Jennifer.”

“That’s a nice name,” he said. “I’m Billy”.

The child said nothing but continued to look into his eyes.

“How did you get in here?” he asked.

“Mama brought me.”

Billy felt his spine tingle again. Children don’t call their mothers “mama” these days. But he kept his head and continued.

“When did she bring you?” he asked, hoping for a reassuring answer.

He didn’t get one. The child shrugged and said

“A long time ago.”

This was not looking good.

“And where is – mama - now?”

“In the shadows,” said the child. “She always stays in the shadows.”

Billy’s back was creeping mercilessly, but he had to know more.

“What do you mean, ‘the shadows?’ What shadows?”

“Those, there,” she said, pointing to the area behind Billy’s back.

He turned to follow the direction of her finger and saw that there were two columns flanking the top entrance to the aisle and supporting the balcony above. The figure of a woman in a long coat and a neat bonnet stood partly hidden behind one of them. The bonnet reminded him of pictures he had seen of nineteen twenties flappers. She was, indeed, in the shadows, and he was unable to see clearly any detail of her form or face. But the tingling of his nerves grew more intense as he saw that she, too, was unnervingly still - and that she was looking at him.

His fear was coming close to being uncontrollable. Having one apparition in front and one behind was difficult to cope with. Billy felt the urge to bolt again. But then the woman walked to one side and disappeared behind the pillar. He relaxed a little but was reluctant to turn back to Jennifer as that would have left him vulnerable to being approached from behind. In order to continue the interrogation, which was now starting to combine fear and curiosity in roughly equal proportion, he moved along the row in front of the child and took up a position facing her. From there he could continue the conversation whilst keeping one eye on the pillar.

By now Billy had little doubt that he was talking to a ghost. And it was apparent that it was the ghost of the child who had been taken to her death by a deranged and suicidal mother, one who obviously preferred to remain in the shadows, presumably out of a sense of shame. He was acutely aware that this was a very bizarre situation, and he could feel the pressure of fear gripping his stomach.

But the impetus of the conversation persuaded him to persist. He wanted to understand why they were there. He believed in the immutability of spirit and the cyclical nature of life, and wondered why they had not moved on. His next question was direct and profound. He wondered whether Jennifer would understand it.

“Tell me Jennifer, why are you still here? Why have you not gone to the next place? Does your mother keep you here?” Jennifer shook her head.

“No,” she said with a hint of indignation. “It’s Mister Gilchrist. He won’t let us go.”

“Who’s Mister Gilchrist?” asked Billy, feeling a fresh surge of consternation. Jennifer shrugged again.

“Don’t know,” she said and lowered her face to look at the floor.

The child’s answer was straightforward and logical. Billy rephrased the question.

“What I mean is, where do you see him? How does he stop you going?”

Jennifer looked up again, and then cocked her head slightly, as though trying to find the right words to tell her story. She sighed and looked back at Billy.

“When mama and I fell down, a lady came. She was very beautiful and glowed all over. She held out her arms and said that she’d come to take us home. Mama went first and I followed her. And then a man came and stood between me and the lady. He growled at her and she floated backwards. It looked as though she was being blown by the wind, only there wasn’t any wind.

“The man shouted at the lady and said that he was keeping me for himself. Mama ran back and shouted at the man and said ‘leave her alone, leave her alone.’ But the man just laughed and the lady disappeared. And then the man turned round and told me that his name was Mister Gilchrist, and that I was his to keep now, like a pet. The lady keeps coming back, but Mister Gilchrist keeps blowing her away. He’s very horrible.”

Billy presumed that Mister Gilchrist was the third ghost, and felt some considerable dread at the possibility of meeting him. He also had the feeling that it was going to happen sooner or later, like it or not. An idea began to form in his mind that some burden of responsibility had been deliberately placed upon him. This whole, incredible situation seemed to have a purpose, and he was central to it. The ten pound note began to look more like a ticket into his worst nightmare than a gift. He hesitated to ask the next question.

“Does Mister Gilchrist hurt you?”

Jennifer shook her head and looked at the floor again. Billy was surprised.

“What does he do?” he asked.

Jennifer’s mouth began to quiver as she stifled an obvious desire to weep. Her voice wavered, but she spoke bravely.

“He just comes and stares at me. And his face grows very ugly. Then he says all sorts of words that I don’t understand and tells me that I have to stay with him forever. And when he goes away again, I feel very ill and frightened. And then mama calls to me from the shadows and says that it will all be over one day. But it never is.”

Billy extended a sympathetic hand instinctively and placed it on Jennifer’s shoulder. She felt solid and he was surprised. How wouldn’t have thought it possible to touch a ghost.

“It isn’t your hand that is touching her, but your will.”

Billy swung around in alarm as the soft but firm voice of a woman rang out behind him. A glowing, pulsating figure was standing at the bottom of the aisle. Its form was indistinct but recognisably human in shape and size. Billy could see no features clearly save one: the eyes were sharply defined, even at that distance. They were warm and kind, and they were familiar. He had seen them earlier that day. The voice continued.

“And it’s only possible because you are still attached to a physical body. The combination of your own will and your physical energy is what makes the illusion of contact an apparent reality. That’s why I guided you here. Jennifer needs your help.”

Billy was stunned. The empty auditorium that had given him such cause for concern earlier was now populated by unbelievable characters from a dream world. He wondered what on earth was coming next, and formed a compelling suspicion that it wasn’t going to be pleasant. By now, however, he felt well practiced in talking to ghosts and the appearance of the third figure, though alarming, prompted the obvious question:

“Who are you? Are you a ghost too?”

“Not exactly. Who I am isn’t important. What matters is what I have to ask you to do.”

He knew it. He desperately wanted to be back in his old, humdrum life. Tedium had suddenly become attractive. But it seemed that some duty was being placed before him and he had never been one to shirk his duty. And so he reluctantly asked the question.

“What do you expect me to do?”

“I don’t expect anything,” continued the voice, “but I hope that you will listen to what I have to tell you and use the advantage you have to help Jennifer and her mother - for she won’t leave without her daughter – to move forward.”

“What advantage?” asked Billy. He wondered what advantage a mere mortal could possess in this dark, unfamiliar world of ghosts and glowing figures.

“The advantage of still having a human body. Let me explain.

“Jennifer and her mother died here. That is, their physical bodies died; the rest of their being lived on. I came to convey them to the place of rest and assessment from which they would be reborn and continue the journey through their personal cycles of existence. I know that you understand that. What you don’t understand is this.

“The nature of their deaths, caused by the mother’s suicidal act, generated a large amount of negative energy. Their states of mind - the mother’s despair and Jennifer’s fear and confusion - added greatly to it; and it was that negative energy that the being known as Mister Gilchrist feeds on.

“During his most recent life he had been a dark and violent man, consumed with hatred and anger. When he was executed in the prison that stood on this site, he was too lost in his own darkness to see the way forward. He was blind to all attempts to help him move on. And so he languished here, existing in a nether world from which he would not allow himself to escape.

“When Jennifer and her mother came along he seized the opportunity to replenish his negative spirits. And now he periodically feeds on Jennifer’s young and vibrant energy, converting it to his own black form and remaining strong. He doesn’t bother with the mother because her spirits are too weak, all but destroyed by her sense of guilt. And this is the crux of the matter: his negative energy is so strong that he can put a barrier between Jennifer and me, locking the child into a world of slavery to his selfish need of sustenance.”

There was a slight pause.

“You have a question.”

Billy was taken aback by the sudden reference to himself. Actually, he had several questions, but one was uppermost in his mind. He didn’t need to voice it. His mind was obviously an open book to the figure, for she continued almost without pause.

“You wonder why I’m not strong enough to overcome Mister Gilchrist. You see me as some omnipotent, angelic figure working for the cause of good against evil. Surely I should be stronger than him, you think.

“It doesn’t work like that. I’m nothing more than a being existing on a plane one removed from yours. I’m merely doing a job, and I’m as restricted by the laws of cause and effect as you are. We have our strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures, just as you do. It would take a power from a higher level than mine to overcome Mister Gilchrist. There are such powers of course, but they don’t intervene, any more than they would step in to stop you walking carelessly in front of a bus. Why should they? We all have to find our own way, solve our own problems and learn our own lessons. And that’s why I have chosen you to help me in my task.”

“Why me?” asked Billy.

“I judged you to be the right person. And you were in the right place at the right time.”

Billy’s ego was bolstered a little, but he still didn’t know how his “advantage” would give him the edge in some apparent rescue mission. The figure continued.

“All Mister Gilchrist’s power is pure energy. He cannot physically touch anything or anyone. But he can control Jennifer and her mother with his will and his capacity to generate fear. And he can rebuff me. We exist on the level of pure energy, as he does. Your physical body is something that we don’t possess. And you can use that to bypass Mister Gilchrist’s control of the situation.”

“How?” asked Billy.

“By physically picking Jennifer up and bringing her to me. You know it can be done; you’ve already touched her. If Jennifer tries to approach me herself, Mr Gilchrist will simply step between us and prevent her. We will be powerless to overcome him. We always are.”

Billy felt a pang of extreme reluctance. He looked around the dark auditorium, certain that the evil Mister Gilchrist would be skulking in the shadows somewhere, and that he would have heard all that had been said. No doubt he would have something to say on the matter himself once the action started.

And then he looked back at Jennifer. She had heard everything too. He doubted that she would have understood all of it, but she would certainly have got the main gist. She looked at him with such desperate hope that his resistance began to fade. He remembered a line from one of his favourite poems.

She hath no loyal knight and true, the Lady of Shalot.

It’s easy to don the imaginary mail and surcoat of a medieval warrior when you’re reading Tennyson in the safety of your own living room. Being faced with a real challenge in a strange world with unknown rules is quite different, and Billy wasn’t really the heroic type.

But feelings of pity and anger welled up in him as he thought of Jennifer’s plight and looked into her helpless, imploring eyes. The will to do whatever was necessary came with them. And Billy was known for two things: a reluctance to start anything difficult, and the stubborn refusal to give up once he had.

“When do we start?” he asked.

“As soon as you’re ready.”

He knew that his response would have to be immediate and decisive. Instinct told him that wavering would only weaken his resolve.

“OK, I’m ready. C’mon Jennifer.”

The child stood up and raised her arms. Billy reached over the back of the seat that separated them and lifted her over it. He felt a fresh wave of consternation mixed with excitement as he cradled her to his chest. He knew that the game was afoot; he had let slip the dogs of war and there could be no resolution save victory or dishonour. His determination was given a welcome boost when she put her arms about his neck.

He avoided looking around as he edged along the gap between the few seats that separated them from the aisle. He knew that Mr Gilchrist wasn’t going to like this, and felt it better to ignore the probability of his intervention for as long as possible. And that wasn’t very long at all.

He had only moved a few feet when the air grew colder still. He saw a black shape, blacker than the surrounding darkness, appear on the seats beyond the aisle. It quickly took the figure of a man and strode across the gap, assuming a position with legs astride at the end of the row. Billy looked into the face of the redoubtable Mister Gilchrist.

It was uglier than he could have imagined. Even in the low light he could see that the skin was pale and waxy. Dark stubble protruded from his cheeks and from the lip above his intensely cruel mouth. Several livid scars stood out as testimony to past battles, and his hair was lank and dishevelled. His eyes were the most fearsome part of his appearance. They seemed to have slits where pupils should have been, like those of a cold blooded reptile. And Billy felt the energy of malevolence flood out of them to send a wave of fear rippling through his body. A low, growling voice resonated through the auditorium.

“What are you doing with the brat?”

Billy was shaken but his nerve held.

“I’m taking her away from you,” he said with a bravado that surprised him. A hideous chuckle ensued.

“Think so, eh? Believe the bitch, do you? Just going to stand aside and let you, am I?”

The fear generated in Billy by Mister Gilchrist’s incessant stare made him hesitate. His voice faltered slightly as he said

“There’s nothing you can do to stop me.”

“Oh, isn’t there now? I’ll tear your eyes out and eat them if you try to get past me.”

Billy’s strength was failing, weakened by the rising sense of intimidation engendered by Mr Gilchrist’s powerful presence. His confidence in the woman’s argument was fading too. He didn’t know who to believe. Perhaps Mr Gilchrist’s threats were more than just bluff. He was very attached to his visual faculty and the prospect of having his eyes torn out seemed terrifyingly real.

He tried to summon more courage and moved forward, but he seemed to be pushing against a dark and violent energy that was almost palpable. He stopped again and felt Jennifer slipping from his grip.

His mind was in turmoil. A conflict was raging between his fear of Mister Gilchrist and the fear of his own shame should he fail. He looked away from the reptilian eyes to give himself some respite, and then realised that it was the first act of submission and looked back at them. The two adversaries continued to stare at each other in silence, but Billy felt that he was losing. Jennifer was growing heavier and Billy more desperate. And then he heard the woman’s voice.

“Give Jennifer to him,” she said calmly.

Billy looked at her in amazement.

“What?”

“Give Jennifer to Mister Gilchrist. Do it now.”

Billy’s sense of shock at this strange order deflected his concentration momentarily away from the menacing figure of his opponent. Why on earth was she telling him to give the child into the arms of the very man from whom he was supposed to be saving her?

The answer came to him in a flash of logic. He realised her purpose and knew that he could trust her. His spirits rose and his strength returned with them. He held Jennifer out at arms length. His grip on her was firm again.

“There you go,” he said. “You want her, you take her.”

“Put her down,” snarled the man.

“No,” said Billy. “You take her off me.”

Mister Gilchrist stared back at him. He made neither sound nor movement. Billy knew that the woman had been right. He pulled Jennifer back to his chest and held her firm.

“You can’t, can you? You can’t touch her, or me. All you’ve got to fight with is fear. Now I know that, it won’t work.”

His confidence grew immeasurably and he strode forward for the final test. He reached out with his free arm and pushed Mister Gilchrist aside. The man staggered backwards and Billy saw his face contort with rage. He leapt back snarling, and threw his hands around Billy’s throat. It was a difficult moment as Billy felt a debilitating, but mercifully brief, thrill of uncertainty again. But he felt nothing physical. He knew that his opponent was powerless against him.

He slipped into the aisle and turned to walk towards the glowing figure waiting at the bottom. He heard a terrible howl of anger and despair behind him, and half turned instinctively. Mister Gilchrist obviously knew that he was beaten and Billy felt the sweet thrill of victory. And he noticed that he had been joined by someone walking to the side and slightly behind him. Jennifer’s mother was about to take advantage of the situation too.

The figure stood patiently as he approached. He could still make out no detail even at close quarters. None, that is, except the eyes; and he saw that they were smiling. He placed Jennifer into the light and saw her mother walk in with her.

There was no parting ceremony. No words were spoken or gestures made. Mother and daughter disappeared into the light, and then the light faded to nothing. Billy’s feelings were not hurt by the lack of apparent recognition of his efforts. A job well done is its own reward, and he felt only contentment and pride as he watched them go. In fact, he had never felt better in his life. The warm glow of achievement lasted for several minutes as he thought of the joy that was being experienced somewhere beyond an invisible curtain.

But then his mind returned to his own dilemma. He was still locked in an empty cinema and could only hope that the forces that had brought him there would effect his release. And what of Mister Gilchrist? Billy wondered what he would be doing and whether there would be more to come from him. He turned and surveyed the auditorium. Mr Gilchrist was gone.

Nevertheless, he walked back up the aisle cautiously. He knew that the embittered old spirit could not harm him physically, but he was concerned that the dreadful creature might still try to frighten him to death.

He reached the row in which he had been sitting earlier without incident. The auditorium was silent and he felt no sense of a presence, evil or otherwise. He decided to sit out the rest of his time, however long that might be, in the light of the foyer. But first he wanted to take one last look at the scene of his adventure. He remembered that he had dreamed of having an adventure whilst sheltering from the rain.

“Be careful what you wish for,” he thought.

He looked across at the dimly lit seats and saw something lying on one of them. He slipped along the row and picked it up. It was a piece of silk ribbon, tied into a bow, and he had no doubt where it had come from. He felt a sudden wave of intense emotion and sat heavily on the seat, regarding the bow through glazed eyes.

“Today we are faced with the most unspeakable attack on our rights and freedoms that the world has ever known. We will face that threat with courage, firm leadership, faith in God, and an unshakeable belief in democracy. I know that, together, we will prevail.”

It was Billy’s turn to hold his breath as he looked up at the face on the screen, now back to glorious Technicolor and mouthing its melodramatic nonsense in a series of agitated movements. He looked down at the seats where twenty heads and shoulders sat in silence. He counted them to be sure they were there. One of them rose and walked up the aisle towards the foyer, and Billy followed with mounting optimism.

He walked through the doors to find people sitting at the tables. An assistant was scurrying about and daylight flooded through the open doors at the front. He lost no time in rushing through them.

The damp air of the urban street smelt wonderful, and the sound of car tyres on the still-wet road could not have been more welcome. And then he remembered the bow. His hands were empty and so were his pockets. He wondered whether he might have dropped it in his haste to be out of the cinema and considered going back. He decided against it. The bow belonged to another time and another world. It couldn’t exist in this one. He walked up the road to the bus stop, climbed wearily aboard a number 27 and went home.

The following day he did some research in the local library and discovered that The Palace Theatre had indeed been built on the site of the old town gaol. He considered trying to trace the story of the suicide. If he got the names, maybe he could find the graves and put some flowers on them. He decided against that too. Jennifer and her mother would be well on their way to pastures new by now, he thought. They had lost time to make up, and flowers would mean nothing to them. He’d always thought that putting flowers on graves was for the benefit of the living anyway. His job was done and that was the end of the matter.

On the way back from the library he called into a tea shop in the High Street. That was another treat he hadn’t had for a long time and he felt that he’d earned it. Being market day, the place was busy. He ordered coffee at the counter and spotted one vacant table by the window. He sat down and idly watched the world go by as he enjoyed his cup of best Colombian.

Half way through it, a well dressed woman walked by and noticed him through the window. He stopped drinking and looked back at her. It was the woman who had bumped into him the day before and Billy suspected that this was more than mere coincidence. A tingle of excitement and trepidation nudged him in the stomach. Was there more to come, he wondered. The woman turned and walked back to the door. She went to the counter, obtained a drink and paid for it with a ten pound note.

“So much for not carrying cash,” he thought.

She walked over to him. Her voice was clipped, her bearing elegant, and her manner redolent of an old fashioned, middle class upbringing.

“Hello,” she said. “Do you remember me from yesterday?”

“I do indeed,” said Billy, tingling even more and wondering what was coming next.

“When I saw you here, I suddenly realised that I could murder a cup of tea. Would you mind awfully if I joined you? You appear to be in sole possession of what little space remains.”

“Of course not,” said Billy. “Please do”.

“Thank you,” she said. “Rather better weather today, isn’t it? Yesterday was dreadful.”

Billy nodded and looked at her eyes. They were friendly enough, but they lacked the special something that had distinguished them the day before. Whatever had possessed them had gone. Maybe this second meeting was no more than a remarkable coincidence after all.

“Did you find the owner of the ten pound note?” she asked.

“No, I didn’t,” said Billy. “I spent it actually. I went to the cinema”.

“That’s nice. Did you enjoy it?”

Billy suppressed a chuckle.

“Actually, it was very exciting.”

“Oh good,” said the woman - more out of politeness than genuine interest, he thought. “I had a treat, too, this morning. I’ve just come from the cottage hospital. My daughter gave birth to her first child a few hours ago, a beautiful little girl. I’m a grandmother now.”

When Billy heard that, the spark of suspicion crackled into life again. The question forced itself out his mouth, despite his best efforts to stop it.

“Congratulations,” he said. “Does she have a name yet?”

“She does actually, yes. My daughter’s decided to call her Jennifer. I don’t know why. There’s no one in the family with that name. She said it just came to her as the child was being born, and she felt that it was somehow meant to be. Rather old fashioned these days, don’t you think? But it’s sweet enough I suppose. It’ll do.”

Billy’s heart was beating a little faster than usual, and there was something he felt compelled to do.

“Would you mind waiting a few moments?” he said to the woman. “There’s something I need to get. I’ll be very quick.”

His companion looked surprised.

“Well, no, I suppose not.”

Billy hurried out of the tea shop and along the road to the department store. He made for the display of hair ornaments and found the rack containing fabric bows attached to cards. He selected one at random, paid for it and hurried back to the tea shop.

“I hope you won’t think this too strange,” he said when he had retaken his seat. “I wonder if you’d mind taking this for the baby. I realise that she won’t have too much hair at the moment, but she can use it when she’s older.”

The woman looked at him with a puzzled expression. He felt embarrassed and thought quickly, composing a convincing explanation for his action.

“Let’s just say that the ten pound note I found yesterday was a bit of a windfall and I feel guilty about spending it all on myself. It’s a little quirk of mine. I suppose I could just give a couple of pounds to charity, but it strikes me that it would be nice to give someone a personal gift.”

The woman accepted his explanation. She smiled and said

“That’s very sweet of you. Of course I will. I’m sure my daughter will be very touched. And, who knows, maybe you’ll meet Jennifer when she’s older and she can thank you herself.”

Billy felt that he could probably count on it. He drank the remains of his coffee and stood up.

“Oh well,” he said, “must be off. Do give my best wishes to your daughter.”

“I will indeed,” said the woman. “Goodbye.”

As he set off to walk home he felt a rare sense of confidence and freshness, a lightness of heart that reminded him again of the simple perceptions of childhood. The humdrum world around him looked clearer, more sharply focussed, and he began to notice details in everyday objects that he had never seen before.

He didn’t have quite enough cash to take the bus; the purchase of the bow had seen to that. But then, he did feel full of energy and in need of a good walk. His mind was filled with the glow of satisfaction as he thought of the previous day’s events. And it seemed that helping Jennifer resume her rightful journey might not be the end of the story after all.

Billy has never been to The Palace since that day. It looms large in his sights every time he walks in that direction, but no film could ever match the extraordinary experience he’d had there. He is also quite content to make do with the victory laurels of one adventure. His reluctance to start anything difficult makes him somewhat wary of receiving another call to arms. He knows he would not relish the moment when time might stop, the air go cold, and a woman’s voice float across the darkness with the words

“Mr Gilchrist needs your help.”

About Me

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I've never had money because I've never been driven by money. I received little formal education beyond the age of sixteen, which isn't such a bad thing since you get a different angle on life that way. Learning what you want and need to learn often reveals things that the system's road keeps hidden.
JJ Beazley asserts his ownership of copyright in all works of fiction and non-fiction contained herein unless otherwise stated. Feel free to quote anything if you want to, but please don't nick a story and claim it for your own. That would compromise my chances of getting an anthology published and I'd be a bit miffed.



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